6 Oct 2021

Embrace the virtual library space


Graphic designed by Iain McCool

Libfocus is very happy to post the winning entry in this years CONUL Library Assistants Award. Congratulations Iain McCool,  Queens University Belfast Library. Congratulation Iain. 


The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown restrictions have turbo-blasted libraries toward becoming fully integrated virtual service providers. Libraries have very much always been about the provision of frontline services, offering valuable and friendly support for library users. 

The uncompromising situation witnessed throughout 2020, however, saw the nature of face-to-face interaction no longer being a viable option. As a consequence, library staff had to adapt to changes quickly and discover innovative new ways of communicating with their patrons. 

The library profession continually tries to find novel new ways to engage and offer support. Long before COVID-19, libraries had considered how to maximise the potential of digital services. The sudden impact of lockdown brought about a circumstance of uncertainty for which libraries were already ably prepared to cope (Walsh & Harjinder, 2020). 

Libraries have accordingly sought to develop the services they provide, in so far as, they now allow for patrons to gain access to resources remotely (Lindsay, 2021). The culmination of what has been experienced over the course of lockdown has presented libraries with an opportunity to become an effective virtual service provider that can make library resources more accessible.

                                        Image of the McClay Library atrium from the 2nd floor

A large aspect of university life has always been about a student’s ability to learn for themselves and thereby develop the necessary skills required to progress onto postgraduate study. 

Learning for oneself 

In order to be successful at university, students need to attend lectures and seminars. Students have to know how and where they can access learning resources, they should allocate adequate time to study, and learn how to correctly cite references (Barnes, 1995).

The library seeks to improve the experiences of students with a supportive study environment by helping develop research skills and manage expectations, equipping students with the necessary reading material, as well as offering a spacious study location that is quiet and well-kept, and is simultaneously in close vicinity to alternative campus amenities. 

The McClay Library, for example, also prepares students for university with the Transition Skills Online Training programme. Begun in 2019, this programme functions as an outreach project to improve school leavers information literacy.

                                       Image of a study area for students in the McClay Library

In many instances, patrons were no longer able to physically access the library during lockdown. This situation necessitated a rethink in terms of borrowing rights. Over the course of lockdown, library users had their standard loans extended. 

We learn by doing 

The renewal policy in the McClay Library had been under review prior to COVID-19. A new procedure has since been implemented whereby standard loans are renewed automatically unless the book is requested by someone else.

Complications regarding physical access to collections also initiated the deployment of a temporary Scan and Deliver service in the McClay library, whereby patrons could get a scan of print collections sent to them personally if the request was one chapter or 10% of a book, whichever being greater.

                A strategy model created by Library Chat Enhancement Group to assist staff training 

A new feature to library services was rolled out at the beginning of lockdown which enabled library users to get in touch with library staff using an online chat service. The implementation of Library Chat proved to be an advantageous success for library services, as queries are answered in real-time. 

Library Chat 

Library Chat places new demands on frontline library staff who adapted their skillset from answering queries in-person to using an interactive online tool (Cohn & Hyams, 2021). Communication was key to share specialised knowledge amongst departments, so a new process had to be devised for query referral and new training guides were developed for staff. 

The Library Chat Enhancement Group (LCEG), was comprised of library assistants who had first-hand experience of using Library Chat and was formed for the benefit of staff development in order to enhance the library user experience. The strategy employed encouraged a hands-on learning model based on experiential learning techniques (Kolb, 2014), complimented by group training sessions to obtain feedback. 

LCEG began by publishing a QuickStart guide which gave basic guidance on how to use the platform, a Latest Announcements page was designed to keep staff UpToDate with library developments, and an Information for LibChatters guide was produced to detail library policy.


Higher education was identified as an essential service which could operate in some shape or form during lockdown. The nature of the restrictions imposed have had such a debilitating effect on the provision of in-person library services that much of what was practiced before the pandemic may no longer be applicable in the future (Ma, 2020). 

In embracing the virtual space, some of the new changes mentioned in this piece may still have a relevant part to play going forward, and ultimately enhance the provision of library services.

* all images and graphics by Iain McCool


Barnes, R. (1995) Reading academic texts, in Barnes, R. (ed.) Successful Study for Degrees. London: Routledge, pp. 51-63. 

Cohn, S., Hyams, R. (2021) Making Room for TBD: Adapting Library Websites during a Pandemic, Computers in Libraries, 41(2), pp. 18-21 [Online]. Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com.queens.ezp1.qub.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsbig&AN=edsbig.A654780607&site=eds-live&scope=site (Accessed: 5th July 2021). 

Kolb, D.A. (2014) The Process of Experiential Learning, in Kolb, D.A. (ed.) Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc., pp. 68-108. [Online]. Available at: https://r3.vlereader.com/Reader?ean=9780133892505 [Accessed: 5th July 2021). 

Lindsay, M.J., et al. (2021) Mind like Water: Flexibly Adapting to Serve Patrons in the Era of COVID-19, Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 40(1), pp. 56-66 [Online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/02763869.2021.1873622 (Accessed: 5th July 2021). 

Ma, L.F.H. (2020) Academic Library Services during COVID-19: The Experience of CUHK Library, International Information and Library Review, 52(4), pp. 321-324 [Online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/10572317.2020.1834251 (Accessed: 5th July 2021). 

Walsh, B., Harjinder, R. (2020) Continuity of Academic Library Services during the Pandemic: The University of Toronto Libraries Response, Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 51(4), pp. 237-245 [Online]. Available at: muse.jhu.edu/article/760728 (Accessed: 5th July 2021).